Henri Cole 
Middle Earth 
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003
55 pp. $11.00

Reviewed by Scot Barnett


The Blur of Human Feeling


Principally concerned with the nearly relentless unraveling of repressed and situated anxiety, of the self imprisoned by a debilitating tension between seemingly contrary means of existence, Henri Cole’s Middle Earth (2003) recalls and finally gestures beyond the suffocating sense of loneliness and isolation so palpable in his four previous collections. Here, affective extremes surface and resurface in a dense thicket of rigidly prescribed experience where feeling, defined within the “either-orism” of contested emotions, offers in the end only two ways of being: solitude or companionship, or alternatively authentic or imagined identity.

In his desired and imagined Middle Earth (a reference to Auden’s “Under Which Lyre,” not Tolkein’s embattled realm), where “the past dims like a great, tiered chandelier” and the “present grows fragmentary / and rough,” Cole locates a necessary retreat from these competing tensions, a kind of inhabitable placeless space where grief, resulting from his father’s death, and perpetual self-abasement and loneliness dissolve amid “the soil / and entanglement of actual living.” In the interstices of Middle Earth, only the “illusion of unity is achieved,” though easing “the fear of being shown whole in the mirror,” of finally knowing the self stripped of its adopted and deceptive robes, still remains painfully difficult here as it does in many of the poems in this elegant and richly textured collection.

The desire to accept, or even affirm, a vision of self unreduced by fragmented perception or disaffecting grief informs for Cole a nearly narcissistic reading of the self as other, projected on and within his sometimes idealized, sometimes contested conceptions of father, animal, and lover. I say “nearly narcissistic” because what Cole longs for most—a desirable image of the self unrestrained by isolation or burdensome affect—never fully materializes in the other’s constructed visage. Rather, confronting the self in the imagined text of his father’s image becomes for Cole only a “way of self-forgetting,” of fracturing any hopeful gestures toward wholeness in favor of a habitual sense of isolation and disaffection characteristic of his earlier collections:

             Like me, you felt neglected,
you were in a mood of mental acuteness.
Like you, I was a man
with a taciturn spirit,
I was a man who would 
never belong to anything.
Solitude had made us her illegitimate sons.

In an effort to move beyond this limited re-visioning of self as observed and examined in the reflected image or memory of another, and to reconstitute what grief and perpetual suffering have shattered, Cole turns his attention to animal experience where the immediacy of felt experience juxtaposes the debilitating persistence of human feeling. Locating a sense of self in the apes at the Berlin Zoo, for instance, where “it is understood that part of me lives in you,” invites Cole to recontextualize and reconsider the purposes and occasions for suffering:

               Pondering you,
as you chew on a raw onion and ponder me,
I am myself as a boy, showering with my father, learning not to be afraid ,
spitting mouthfuls of water into the face of the loved one,
the only thing to suffer for.

Perhaps most striking in Middle Earth is how the “readability” of identification allows for the smooth, unhurried development of voice and perception. Despite their relative shortness, these poems (most of which are free verse sonnets) are patiently controlled, collectively easing toward a recovery of self as witnessed and scrutinized through the imagined renderings of idealized or contested bodies. Whether in the Berlin Zoo Ape House or in the nameless country where “you can hear [deer] chewing / before you see them standing or sitting,” Cole locates in animal experience the desired balance between the dizzying affect of human feeling and the static listlessness of solitary inhabitation:

where all that I am is borne and is effaced
by the herd of deer gathered in the meadow—
like brown ink splashed on rice paper—
abstract, exalted, revealing the eternal harmony,
for only five or six moments, of obligation to family
manifested with such frightful clarity and beauty
it quells the blur of human feeling.

Now disconnected from his father, Cole conceives of animal otherness as a kind of surrogate bond in which identification culminates in the (re)articulation of the desired self which actively resists fragmentations of being, including literary and academic acclaim. The reclamation of the self through the contrived readability of animal experience becomes for Cole an utopian project where, by banishing perpetual suffering and other extreme affects, we might transcend any further need to identify with another, finally situating the self as cohabitant with a desired other, the desired self:

It was as if I could dream what I wanted,
and what I wanted was to long for nothing—
no facts, no reasons—never to say again,
“I want to be like him,” and to lie instead
in the hollow deep grass—without esteem or riches—
gazing into the big, lacquer black eyes of a deer.

As in The Look of Things (1995) and The Visible Man (1998), the intensity in Middle Earth arises out of the palpable fear of finding oneself alone. In Cole’s earlier collections, the tensions between religion and sexuality, between homosexual desire and permissibility, conspire to subdue and isolate agency and freedom which he suggests is “the coming and going in life without thinking.” Though the affect of loneliness remains prevalent in Middle Earth, this tension is significantly muted, or rather it functions differently here, subtly informing the exigency for a placeless space, an inhabitable retreat apart from the competitive system of feeling and restriction.

In the collection’s last poem “Blur,” Cole interweaves the lessons culled from his quasi-narcissistic identifications with animal otherness with his long-standing uncertainties regarding situatedness and isolation. Addressing an erotic though ambiguous relationship (“Blur” is a poem which may be read as either to a beloved or to the self), Cole confesses that “I was weak and he was like opium to me, / so present and forceful. I believed I saw myself / through him.” Once again, semblances of the fragmented self—”the impermeable core / of one’s being made permeable,” the “soul; the indolence; the being alone”—conspire to resist wholeness and, consequently, shared experience through companionate love:

All the things I loved—a horse, a wristwatch,
a hall mirror—and all the things I endeavored to be—
truthful, empathetic, funny—presupposed
a sense of self locked up in a sphere,
which would never be known to anyone.

Exceeding the sense of isolation so prevalent and palpable in his earlier collections, Cole arranges Middle Earth as a kind of contested response, a rejection of past sufferings culminating in a gesture, albeit initial, toward a vision of an unstrained self that is no longer locked up in a sphere. For Cole, learning to love the self means learning to maneuver between and among competing extremes which serve only to subordinate and isolate agency and self-consciousness. On the road to Middle Earth, Cole fashions systems of recollection and re-vision in which the urgency of felt experience competes with the cold and sterile disaffection of reason and restriction. In both cases, extremes in sensation result in further fragmentation, where everything is “decanted and modulated,” and “the self—pure, classical, like a figure carved from stone— / [is] something broken off again.” The urge to assume and value one way of being over the other ultimately striates perception, in turn informing two antithetical ways of being:

one, seamless
saturated color (not a bead of sweat),
pure virtuosity, bolts of it; the other,
raw and unsocialized, “an opera of impurity,”
like super-real sunlight on a bruise.
I didn’t want to have to choose.
It didn’t matter anymore what was true
and what was not. Experience was not events,
but feelings, which I would overcome.

The potential to overcome such prescribed ways of being imbues Henri Cole’s Middle Earth with an emerging sense of agency and resistance not significantly realized in his earlier collections. From the placeless disassociation of an imagined in-between, Cole manages to reclaim something of a desirable self in these brief poems, in the process moving beyond a debilitating sense of solitude by identifying and finally de-valuing the systems of experience partly responsible for his listless isolation. 



Scot Barnett is an MA candidate in rhetoric and composition at North Carolina State University where he is researching rhetorical affects of movement and inhabitation in and among lived and transitory spaces.


Leave a Comment